Ron Ries, not-for-profit partner at Top 100 Firm WeiserMazars and former chief financial officer of a major not-for-profit, recently recalled a typical proposal nightmare.

He was just leaving the seminar when he was introduced to Cheryl, the CFO of a large agency in the county. Cheryl, hearing about Ron's NFP expertise, took him aside and said, "I really need your help."

Ron knew his follow-up meeting with Cheryl went well and that he could help her in many ways, so he offered to send her a proposal. He organized a firm proposal team consisting of marketing, IT specialists, and other CPAs. Four days later, Cheryl received their well-polished proposal.

Ten months and a slew of unanswered follow up e-mails and phone calls later, Cheryl's agency decided to open the project up to an RFP "beauty contest" (Cheryl even asked Ron to submit an updated proposal).

A year to the day from their first conversation, Cheryl sent Ron an e-mail telling him that he had made a great presentation and proposal, but her agency had chosen another firm because their "pricing was better."

Is it any surprise then that a good number of proposals "go dark," often at great expense and psychic drain to professionals and firms? The good news is that accounting firms, having been burned too often, are now coming up with new and better strategies regarding requests for proposals.


Getting Systematic

Most firms today have employed either a formal or semi-formal proposal procedure, and even templates to make proposal development easier, faster and less of a drain on firm resources.

Carol Carlile, managing director of practice development at Top 100 Firm Holthouse Carlin & Van Trigt LLP, shared, "We do not use a formal proposal submission process, but we do utilize proposal templates. We have an audit/tax template, a tax-only template, and industry-specific templates. We have also prepared a Frequently Asked Questions document which teams can access to address common RFP questions."

To help professionals be more efficient and effective in how to get more winning proposals out the door, Carlile made an advanced step when she created a training module called "Effective Proposals," incorporating this soft skills training into the firm's learning curriculum. The trick is to systematize your proposal process while maintaining your firm's unique "flavor" and making potential clients feel that yours is a custom-fit relationship.


The Art of The Proposal

Understanding current trends in how people like to receive information prompted Craig Browning, marketing and business development manager of Blue & Co. LLC to blend creativity and technology into his firm's proposal development.

Browning created a library of Adobe-like proposal covers and backgrounds featuring industry-specific graphics and messaging onto which relevant text content can be layered. They're colorful and devote plenty of space to engaging graphics, without skimping on space for text.

Browning has also prepared a comprehensive tutorial in PowerPoint format giving the firm's professionals step-by-step ideas on how to set up content and graphics for maximum appeal.


Into Action

Knowledge without implementation will not produce new, improved results. Sports coaches know this, so taking a page out of the sports world, here's a playbook for winning proposals:

  • Play 1: Ask the difficult questions: qualifying/disqualifying/probing questions.
  • Play 2: Ascertain industry knowledge and/or expertise.
  • Play 3. Create a power proposal team and name a team leader.
  • Play 4. Establish accountabilities: tasks, roles, timetable.
  • Play 5. Reflect client focus versus firm focus.
  • Play 6. Stand out and engage the readers: images and technology.
  • Play 7. Cover the essentials: Address all requirements and expectations, and answer all RFP questions completely.

And here are a set of pitfalls to avoid, suggested by marketing experts from a variety of firms:
1. Making the proposal about the firm, instead of the client. -- Eric Majchrzak, chief marketing officer and shareholder, BeachFleischman

2. Failure to understand that the sales cycle doesn't end when the proposal is issued. -- Carol Carlile, managing director of practice development, Holthouse Carlin & Van Trigt

3. Failure to distinguish influencers from actual decision-makers at the prospect. -- Carol Carlile

4. Not accurately answering the questions in a request for proposal; not spell checking thoroughly. -- Amy Fischer, marketing manager, McGladrey

5. Underestimating the time needed to prepare the proposal. -- Jill Jacobs, CMO, Citrin Cooperman

6. CPAs being "Lone Rangers," and not involving marketing and other critical team members throughout the firm. -- Kari Schott, director of marketing, Green Hasson Janks

7. Submitting proposals to companies when the firm lacks expertise or limited understanding of the company, relationships, or growth plans. -- Dan DiMarco, business development executive, Grant Thornton

8. Having little or no strategy for winning the engagement. -- Michael Bowlan, director of marketing, Brown Smith Wallace

9. Proposals that attempt to win via discounted pricing. -- Nancy Fox

10. Not asking the right qualifying/disqualifying questions before working on the proposal. -- Nancy Fox

You are now well-armed with the tools to prevent dangling proposals and prospects, and for turning danglers into winners.

Nancy Fox is the founder and president of The Business Fox, a business consulting and training company specializing in helping law, accounting, and service business firms grow through smarter networking and business development and niche marketing strategies.

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